The Legacy of Theft

University students putting up a tipi with the guidance of an elder

University students putting up a tipi with the guidance of an elder

Understanding and conceptualizing appropriation was not an easy job for me. Appropriation doesn’t seem like an easy thing to talk about anywhere, and maybe that’s just the kind of tension to be expected in a country that attempts to embrace multiculturalism. Ultimately my belief is that appropriation is an abstract to universal issues within our social systems, and that if someone is truly wanting to understand appropriation they need to understand the history that underlines that word for that specific culture. Since this is an Indigenous fashion oriented channel, it makes sense to understand what appropriation is in the context of North American Indigenous culture and why it is indeed harmful to Indigenous folks.

Indigenous people were predominantly socialist cultures where the community helped the community, and everyone was given what they needed to survive. With the Blackfoot, they were known to be Bison hunters that would use innovation to procure enough food for the entirety of the year by tricking Bison to jump off of cliffs. Everyone had a place during the Buffalo Jump, and everyone's needs were taken care of. Since the Cold War, North American settler governments have been weary about socialism and communism entering their societies because of fears of big government. Big governments have proven to be destructive and dangerous in the past, and we emphasis this by calling those big governments “dictatorships” or “totalitarian”.

Indigenous people would have a good argument about the merits of the other side of neoliberalism. To Indigenous North Americans, neoliberalism is what communism has been for white folks: a method for the destruction of shared values and efforts of a people. It was in the context of neoliberalism which brought settlers to North America to begin with. They used methods of imperialism imbued with racism and greed because it was during the time of the industrial revolution and the free market was a God send. For the Blackfoot, neoliberalism was particularly damaging because the Bison were wiped out for their furs by these big businesses wanting to sell them across seas. Government in North America have predominantly been unprincipled that were easily influenced by capital, so the big businesses were completely free to do what they wanted. This was supported by Canadian and US governments by them using this as a means for forcing the Blackfoot into using European peasant-like methods of farming and engaging in neoliberalism in the ‘New World’.

This type of understanding of North American political history has me thinking like Kierkegaard's book on “Either Or”: Big government and you’ll regret it, big corporations and you’ll regret that too, big government or big corporations, you will regret it either way! Of course Kierkegaard was talking about marriage, but replacing “marry or don’t marry” with “big government or big corporations” does still validate Kierkegaard’s point, that we’re indeed human and that we shouldn’t berate ourselves because of that. These are simply imperfect systems made by imperfect beings.

I am by no means an absolute hater on neoliberalism but there are a couple things to say on how we view Liberalism and Socialism. First and foremost, ideologies are extremes, they have dials of intensity, and we can adjust them without sacrificing our values and individual efforts. Second, we need to understand that our current establishment can’t work when greed and racism are pillars of that establishment.

Indigenous people have had their entire culture wiped away by white supremacy and the greedy culture surrounding neoliberalism. When Indigenous people today attempt to regain their culture or their sense of distinctiveness, it’s a protest against white supremacy. It’s appropriation when non-Indigenous people attempt to steal parts of Indigenous culture because of the long history of cultural dispossession that occurred by non-Indigenous people. A pure act of reconciliation and appreciation (the opposite of appropriation) is when non-Indigenous folks and especially white folks support and empower Indigenous people and their journey with reconnecting with their roots.